Peter Espeut | Hurricanes and prayer
The changes in direction of powerful Hurricane Matthew have led to the expected claims by the usual suspects. The fundamentalist prayer warriors are claiming victory for their awesome God who could part the Red Sea and calm the storm, and who, in this case - because of their prayer - has caused the hurricane to move away from God's country and towards voodoo-ridden Haiti and communist Cuba. God is a just God, they will claim.
But why, the secularists argue, was God so vicious and malicious to have sent Matthew heading our way in the first place? Did the Jamaican prayer warriors 'change the mind of God'? Was it the prayer warriors in the Yucatan that caused Matthew to stop and turn north away from them and towards us? Is the unchanging God so fickle?
If their supplication is so powerful, the secularists will argue, why can't the prayer warriors barrage heaven and deal with corrupt politicians, the garrisons with their gunmen and extortionists, and the Montego Bay lotto scammers? And couldn't their prayer have worked long distance to influence the Supreme Courts of the USA and Belize? The secularists then pour scorn on all religion as self-serving and hypocritical and an emotional crutch for fragile egos.
BABY WITH THE BATH WATER
Now, hold on! Not all Christians are fundamentalists. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water!
When the followers of Jesus asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them a template, but many people have reworked it to suit themselves. Instead of 'Thy will be done', they want 'My will be done'. What they really want to do is control God, so that he does things their way.
Surely, God's plan is better than mine, and so what I really want is for His will to be done, not mine, no matter how tough the road is. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, the God-Man, sweated blood because of what was to come. For hours, He struggled with His Father: "Father, if it is Your will, let this cup pass from Me." But in the end, He had to pray, "Not My will, but Thine be done," and on to the cross He went.
The best approach to prayer, then, is to seek God's will (discernment) and then to pray for that to be done.
We are also called to take up our cross and follow Him, and maybe for some, a hurricane is part of their cross. But the so-called 'prosperity gospel' wants Christianity without the cross. That very comfortable bastardisation of the gospel is worthy of much criticism, for it is leading many away from the truth. It clearly has not occurred to many Christians that God's plan for our lives might include suffering.
And so they feverishly pray for the hurricane to turn away from them so they won't suffer, even if that means it will hit someone else who will suffer. It is self-centred selfishness! So much for 'Do unto others ... ."
And then there are the frivolous prayers for the West Indies or Jamaica to win their matches or for 'my party' to win the election, as if the other side does not also pray to the same God for the same thing. We should pray to always do our best, and to be free of untoward incidents, not for the attainment of selfish goals.
I think the source of the problem lies in a preoccupation with the early Old Testament, which contained the ethic that the good will prosper in this life, while the wicked will be similarly punished down here. But personal observation reveals the exact opposite: Many good people suffer, while many wicked people prosper. The turning point was the Book of Job, where the issue was treated fulsomely. The reward or punishment is not in this life, but the next. The later Old Testament and all of the New Testament reflect this more developed theological position revealed in scripture.
We are encouraged 'to ask', and 'to seek', and 'to knock', but our prayer will be answered only if we 'ask for things in accordance with His will' (I John 5:4). When the Holy Spirit prays to God for us (Romans 8:27), he does so according to the "mind of God". The closer we get to God, the closer our lives and our needs are aligned with His ways, the more we know what to pray for.
Those who study theology know how complex an issue is this matter of prayer to an unchanging God. Not all denominations believe in theology (faith seeking understanding; fundamentalists) are satisfied to quote (often ignorant of the context) a string of Bible passages. They are more comfortable with a God who is a big 'boops' in the sky rather than one who makes difficult demands on them.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.